Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

sopReleased: December 5, 1991
Pages: 507 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Coming of age, questioning, consciousness, historical development, philosophy vs. religion, global unity
Genre(s): YA / Philosophy / History / Norwegian Fiction
Age Group: 16+

★★★★

One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, with one question on each: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” From that irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through those letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning–but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined

Preface

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book, other than the summary made it sound like a fun mystery combined with a young girl’s review of western philosophy. I had been very interested in philosophy in high school, though, thinking it might be something that I pursued in college.

I’ve tried to read this book before a couple of times, only getting as far as the Greek philosophers, whom I’d probably say I previously knew the most about of all the philosophers discussed in this book. I think I found it slow or boring, but I always felt like I would one day finish it. Now felt like a great time so I wanted push through and read the whole thing so I could un-haul it if I wished.

I’m so happy I gave this book another chance! The beginning is hard to get through (if you struggle with open-slate protagonists), but once Sophie starts meeting her philosophy teacher in person and the mystery deepens, it’s a much more gripping read. I feel like it should be required reading for every human.

My Thoughts

…I will do what I can to acquaint you with your historical roots. It is the only way to become a human being. It is the only way to become more than a naked ape…

I had to rate this book 5 stars, but this rating is not based on my enjoyment of the story, the inventiveness of the plot, or the authenticity of the characters. I rate Sophie’s World 5 stars because of how well the author details and synthesizes the development of western philosophical thought from its Greek origins to its Christian influences all the way up to the big 20th century thinkers.

I do not want to spoil this book, but I feel that many people might start this book and give up before it gets good if they don’t know what to expect. The greatest value of this book comes from how it makes philosophy accessible to young people and highlights why it matters. The mystery and Sophie’s regular life is less captivating until a third of the way through the book.

There’s a major twist that occurs that I actually found to be really unexpectedly terrifying. It’s like a nightmare scenario it never occurred to me that I might have. For the skeptical, it may seem a bit absurd. I found it absurd, but I also saw how it relates to the philosophic ideas that were being discussed at that time and might be hard to fully understand without this twist that shakes up Sophie’s world forever.

Undeniable and unsurprisingly, there are not many famous female philosophers. This book does not skirt around that fact. In fact, I think it does a great service to readers by addressing this unfortunate fact and by both shouting out the great men who saw females as equals and calling out those who saw them as inferior. It doesn’t demonize these men, but it reminds us that great men are not always perfect and we can appreciate what they contributed without putting them on a pedestal.

One final thing I’ll say is this book is not a quick or easy read. To better digest the information, I found myself having to read it in chunks. The good thing is the story almost seems organized to allow for these breaks between material. I consider myself a pretty fast reader, but this book took me about a week to finish.

Craft

I don’t have much to say with regards to craft in this novel. I didn’t think the characters were too authentic, but I hesitate to criticize much with regards to actual writing voice or style because I feel like this book had to have been translated from Norwegian. Also, I recognize the story wasn’t really meant to be character-driven. So I’ll primarily talk about the novel’s structure.

I can see how some might call it a textbook for the breadth of history and knowledge it covers in chronological order. Most of the chapters are titled for the philosopher or period of time that is the subject of Sophie’s lessons. I think this is really useful because I won’t ever have to reread this book in full again. I can just revisit the specific chapters on the figures who interested me the most.

There’s a major plot twist that occurs about one third of the way through the novel that I hesitate to spoil for the sake of anyone who picks up the book for the mystery aspect. I also worry that many people would give up on the book before they get to the twist, which is, in my opinion, a reason to spoil. I’ll leave it at that, though!

It does raise an important question of whether a great twist can justify putting a reader through a slow beginning. I personally would say no most of the time, especially if it can be avoided. I’m not sure it could’ve been avoided in Sophie’s World, however. It works really well with the philosophical content.

Final Thoughts

After finishing Sophie’s World, I found myself with a greater respect for theologists as philosophers. I also had to reassess my own capacity for belief. I do not think this book justifies religion, but it shows how people can find spaces to fit faith that does not necessarily contradict human knowledge by reason or experience.

I find myself wanting to revisit some of the books I read earlier this year that dealt in some way with spirituality (specifically The Chosen and Franny and Zooey). I’ve considered myself an atheist for a few years now (and am currently reconsidering whether I’m more agnostic), but I’ve always been drawn to stories about brilliant people who grappled with their belief in a personal and meaningful way. I can’t put into words exactly what I mean, but I feel like Sophie’s World could be key to discovering why.

This book’s a keeper!

Have you read Sophie’s World? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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